Hockey Canada

Leafs’ Bozak battling through slump at critical point in career

TORONTO – It is look-in-the-mirror time for Tyler Bozak, and the face the longest-tenured Toronto Maple Leaf sees staring back at him is pale and malnourished and working hard to mask frustration.

The veteran centre returned to the ice Tuesday, assuming his regular spot in rushes between James van Riemsdyk and Mitchell Marner.

Bozak is still recovering from a nasty bout of food poisoning that seized him Friday night in Vancouver and kept him out of the lineup for Saturday’s loss to the Canucks. Tuesday marked his first day back in skates and first day keeping food in his stomach since, and he still doesn’t feel quite like himself.

“Not great. I’m not gonna lie,” Bozak described his energy after practice. “The night before the [Canucks] game I started throwing up all night. Couldn’t keep anything down. Same thing the next morning and the next two days after that. I haven’t thrown up yet today.”

Through two months of his contract season, Bozak has grown accustomed to clinging to silver linings. He’s a minus-4, but the team is plus-15. He’s not scoring, but the opportunities keep coming. His production has dropped significantly after a career-best, 55-point campaign in 2016-17, but, hey, the team is 17-10-1 and looks like a legitimate contender one third of way though its regular-season grind.

“If you look at your numbers right here today and you multiply it by three, that tells you who you are — unless you do something about it,” coach Mike Babcock said. “The guys who are off to a great start wanna replicate it. The guys who aren’t wanna fix it.”

Bozak undoubtedly falls into the latter category.

Triple Bozak’s goals (four) and assists (seven) and you’ll get a production line of 12-21-33. That would be the 31-year-old’s smallest numbers in a full 82-game season since he was a sophomore in 2010-11.

For the fourth consecutive season, Bozak’s average ice time has dropped; he’s steadily fallen from 20:57 in his Phil Kessel–feeding salad days to the 14:55 he now logs pivoting Toronto’s third line.

Bozak has registered just three points over his past 12 outings and hasn’t celebrated a goal in over a month.

“All three of us haven’t been happy with ourselves. Thing is, it’s still early. There’s still lots of time to get our game back,” Marner said.

“We get a lot of chances per game. When James gets a chance, it’s going in the net because he’s around that net and he’s very good. With me or Bozie, it seems like it’s getting saved, bouncing over our stick, or a guy’s diving and getting a poke on it. I think Bozie’s had two or three empty nets where a [defender] has dove and just chipped it over his stick. I’ve had a couple back doors where the goalie’s been there on me. It gets frustrating after a while.”

Bozak is still an above-average face-off artist (50.5 per cent), but his success in the dot has dropped significantly from the career-best 56.7 per cent rate he enjoyed in 2016-17.

“That was one of Bozie’s big strengths in the past. The new [face-off] rules haven’t helped him,” Babcock said, “but we need him to get back to that form. Being a dominant face-off guy really helps him. He gets a lot of offence in the O-zone out of that.”

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Factor in the face-off improvement of Nazem Kadri, Auston Matthews and William Nylander — plus the addition of draw-winners Patrick Marleau and Dominic Moore, a couple of smart free-agent pickups — and Bozak is being leaned on less often in critical set-play scenarios.

“[Bozak] is a pretty important part of our team. Every time you lose a centre, you’re mixing things up. Sometimes Patty plays centre or Willy,” Matthews said. “We’ve got a lot of depth on this team. You make up for it.”

Smiling through his weakened state, Bozak is just happy to be home, not hurling across the sky on a five-hour, cross-country flight. (He can’t pinpoint the culprit meal but says, “Hopefully I don’t eat that again.”) He plans to eat, hydrate and use an IV to replenish the lost fluids before Wednesday’s puck drop.

Bozak wants to draw back in against Calgary at Air Canada Centre and quench his drought, but Babcock said Nylander would skate in the veteran’s spot if he’s not up to par.

Because of Nylander’s strides, Bozak’s struggles, Babcock’s words and a ruthless salary-cap reality, one can’t help must see a man gradually losing his position to a younger, faster talent.

“I told Willy to make sure he’s ready to play centre if we need him to play centre,” Babcock said. “Over time, we’ll just keep working Willy down low in practice, so when it’s time, he can just jump in and play centre.”

Insert perked eyeballs emoji here. The day Nylander takes over for Bozak as an established Toronto centre feels more like a when than an if.

Yes, the Maple Leafs’ spirit (demon?) of internal competition has touched Bozak at a time when his next salary depends on it.

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On July 1, he will become one of the most coveted unrestricted free agents at his position under the age of 33, a small group headlined by John Tavares and featuring St. Louis’s Paul Stastny, Washington’s Lars Eller, and Calgary’s Mikael Backlund.

Before the season began, Bozak was optimistic that he could have another career year.

“I want to take it another step further and lead on and off the ice and produce,” Bozak said back in September. “As athletes, we always expect to improve as individuals and as a team. We expect to be better than we were last year.”

Babcock says when a player is underperforming like Bozak, there are two steps he must take to get on the right track.

First: Own it. Bozak has done that.

“I haven’t got the numbers I want personally,” Bozak said Tuesday. “Hopefully I can produce a little more individually.

“This [slump] has gone a little longer than it has in the past, but you can have one good month and be right back in it, so I’m not too worried about it.”

The second key to busting a slump is to get to work: skate hard in practice, dedicate yourself to the gym. The numbers will come.

“It’s not luck,” Babcock said. “It just turns.”

Sometimes faster than you can believe.

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December 6, 2017

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